For Clay Blackall, a lifelong resident of Providence, Rhode Island, the place has become an obsession. Here live the only people who can explain what happened to his brother, Eli, whose suicide haunts this heartbreaking, hilarious novel-in-fragments. Full of brainy detours and irreverent asides, Exes is a powerful investigation of grief, love and our deeply held yet ever-changing notions of home.By Max Winter
My landlord didn’t want to call the cops. For five years he’d been shuffling me from empty place to empty place while he fixed up the thirty or so eyesores my grandfather sold him. He felt bad about my brother, but bad only gets you so far. Smith Hill was the end of the line. Two babies had fallen out of windows that year alone, and now a guy was walking around with a sword. If you touched the stove and the refrigerator at the same time, you got a shock that felt like a punch in the heart. I’d wet my hands and grab hold and come to in another room.
I told him I needed one more month – for Eli – and he just shook his head.
“I could get six bills for this place, easy,” he said. “Seven even.” He cracked a window, zipped his jacket. He went to open the kitchen cabinets, which held what one expects to find in kitchen cabinets, but also other things.
“Five years is a long time,” one of us added.
“Ah, hell,” my landlord said – in a different voice. He was breathing through his nose, for one thing. “Your grandpa used to tell me I was like a Jew. ‘Luongo,’ he would say, ‘in my eyes, you’re a Jew.’ And from him, I took it. ‘I’ll take it,’ I’d say, like it was the first time he told me.” His eyes were wet, like men’s sometimes get near the end. He toed an unplugged cord to see where it led and shook his head when he did. “Jesus, Clay, this is your icebox. You were supposed to take care of things, keep an eye out.”
“That’s two different jobs,” I said.
A couple minutes later, and he was still shaking his head. I watched him through the bedroom window. For two blocks I could hear his truck rattle. No wonder Grandpa Ike liked him. He’d always known his grandkids weren’t cut out for the family business, but still.
My kid brother Eli’s first car crash into that house at the foot of Jenckes had wiped out his inheritance. His second crash wiped out mine. Now I only had a month or so left of walking-around money, and another year of eating money, maybe. But if I also had to make rent, forget it. Our sister, Libby, was doing okay, I guess, but I hadn’t seen her since Eli’s shivah.
“This is my fault?” I asked when she made it clear she didn’t want to hug me.
“I was here for him,” she said. “Where were you?”
“He didn’t want to see me,” I said. I thought about it. “I reminded him of him?”
“Eli looked up to you.”
“He hated mirrors,” I said, touching the sheet on the one in the hall.
“Why can’t you see things for what they are?” she said, making a face that even I could get.
And now it had been five years. How many Mays are there in five years? May is always hard, but this one was cold and wet, like March. Maybe this was just what spring is for us now.
Reprinted with permission. Excerpted from Exes, by Max Winter (Catapult, 2017).
Max Winter, M.F.A. ’07, lives in Providence and is a two-time recipient of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts fellowship in fiction. His writing has appeared in Day One and Diner Journal.